“If she were to come into the governor’s office in this way, she’d come in with some reservoir of goodwill, some reservoir of trust,” said Julie Novkov, professor of political science and women’s, gender and sexuality studies at the University at Albany, part of the State University of New York system. “New York perceives itself as being a progressive state, and we’ve never had a woman governor.”
Popular among New York Democrats, Hochul has a résumé stacked with local, state and national political roles — and that résumé has been affected several times by men who had behaved or would later behave badly.
The likelihood of her ascension is not clear. New York Republicans wanted to impeach Cuomo when he was facing just the nursing home scandal. And the tide is turning among Democrats in the state, too, with the State Assembly speaker announcing an impeachment investigation. Cuomo seems to be barely hanging on — for now. New York Attorney General Letitia James (D) will oversee an outside law firm’s separate investigation of the sexual harassment claims.
Hochul started her political career as an aide to Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D), an icon of New York politics. She was the deputy clerk and then clerk of Erie County.
Later, Hochul represented a relatively conservative district in Congress, though she supported liberal priorities such as abortion rights and same-sex marriage.
She got that seat in Congress by winning a special election to fill the seat vacated by Rep. Chris Lee (R-N.Y.), who resigned in 2011 after he allegedly sent a flirtatious email and a shirtless photo of himself to a woman on Craigslist. It was a somewhat unlikely seat for a Democrat to win; Hochul was the first Democrat in four decades to do so.
When New York redrew its congressional districts after the 2010 Census, making her district even more conservative, she lost her 2012 reelection bid to Republican Chris Collins. (Collins became a staunch ally of President Donald Trump, and he later resigned and pleaded guilty to insider-trading and false-statements charges).
In 2014, Hochul rebounded politically, joining Cuomo in his bid for a second term as his running mate. They won together again in 2018.
Now, Cuomo’s scandals raise the possibility of New York getting its first female governor.
Over the past six years, Hochul’s role as lieutenant governor has largely been to advocate for Cuomo’s agenda, and her profile has grown since the start of the pandemic. She served as a television surrogate for Cuomo, defending the administration’s decisions on when to close schools and how to reopen them, its rules for maskless dining in restaurants and the state’s vaccine distribution strategy.
“If you follow what we’ve been doing since the very beginning, it just breaks my heart to know that the rest of the country, the entire United States could have had the same infection rate as us … 1 percent or less,” she said last fall, defending the Cuomo administration’s response while attacking Republicans at the federal level.
In 2008, David Paterson (D) became New York’s first Black governor after Eliot Spitzer (D) resigned over a prostitution scandal. At the time, Cuomo was the state’s attorney general.
While Paterson rose from lieutenant governor to serve out the rest of Spitzer’s term, it was Cuomo who became the dominant force in New York politics when the 2010 election rolled around. Now, Cuomo is the one who faces the harsh light of scandal.
Cuomo is accused by one former aide, Lindsey Boylan, of making inappropriate comments and unwanted physical contact and initiating an unwanted kiss on the lips. Another aide, Charlotte Bennett, accused Cuomo of asking her inappropriate, sexual questions, including whether she had ever had sex with an older man. A third woman, Anna Ruch, accused Cuomo of inappropriately touching her at a party. Now, a total of six women have come forward to accuse him of some type of harassment or unwanted touching.
“There’s sort of a sense that seems to be bipartisan that this can’t just end with Cuomo stonewalling,” Novkov said. But Cuomo denies he inappropriately touched anyone or propositioned anyone in his office — a denial he repeated at a March 12 news conference.
Cuomo aides are worried about the possibility of more women coming forward, and James’s investigation is looming.
“If [James] were to conduct an independent investigation that developed strong corroborating evidence of what’s been alleged, it might make it more difficult to maintain support with the people he needs to stay in office,” Novkov said.
For Hochul to become governor, Cuomo would have to resign or be impeached. The likelihood of that seems to hinge on how many state Democrats are willing to stick by him — and that dam hasn’t entirely broken, yet. Cuomo says he will continue in his job while the attorney general’s investigation continues, including participating in critical state budget negotiations.